Kilimanjaro journal. August, 2016.
Peter Swire: Trekking for Kids
Summit day. We woke at midnight at Barafu Camp, a bit over 15,000 feet. We were coming back to the camp after the hike, so blessedly we did not have to pack before climbing. After a short breakfast of porridge and coffee for P, and very little for A, we headed off at 1:15 a.m.
There had been some wind earlier in the night, and huge gusts of about 50 mph the previous night, so we were worried as we set off about the wind and wind chill. Fortunately, it was calm. Temperature below freezing, but not by so much.
From our tents, a few steps down to the Barafu Camp sign, then up a steep, rocky piece for more than a half hour. Completely dark. We wore our head lamps, and focused on the boots of the person in front of us. Our packs were lighter than other days – just the clothes needed for the climb, two liters of water in bottles each, and a planned ten snacks each. When we got to the first break, we found out that Annie had left her snack bag behind. Ouch.
I wore all the layers that Annie had ensured were in the camp bag: heavy wool socks with the boots; one light and one heavy layer of long underwear under the hiking pants; an Icebreaker wool shirt, then a long underwear shirt then the fleece,with down jacket in reserve to slip on during the breaks. Balaclava and warm ski hat. Glove liners with heavy ski gloves in reserve. Goretex jacket and waterproof pants in the pack. Annie had her own layers, but she got colder as the night went on.
After the first steep part, a short flat part and then the heart of the climb- the endless “switchbacks” from roughly 15,700 feet up to Stella Point above 19,000 feet. All in the dark. As we climbed, we had some wind, especially around certain corners. Perhaps 10-15 mph, but enough to make A and most of the hikers colder and colder as the night proceeded. I was the lucky hiker in the cold, as often happens – I wore my glove liners, but did not put on my ski gloves or really get cold, although I did switch to my down jacket for the last third of the climb. For A and most of the others, the cold was a real issue. Part way up, Annie was having trouble with her hands, and our lead guide, Ryan Waters, told her to put more protection on her hands, so she switched to the bulky but warmer ski mittens, to go with the hand warmers inside the glove liners. That made her hands warmer, but made it much harder to grasp the poles or do other tasks with her hands.
We all felt better to be led by our lead guide, Ryan Waters. It was a privilege and a pleasure to hike this trip with Ryan. He is a nice Georgia boy from Marietta, who studied geology at Ole Miss. He evolved from a rock climber, to a hiker in north Georgia, to longer hikes on the Appalachian Trail. Now he runs his own business, a pretty impressive outfit called Mountain Professionals. He has climbed Kili ten times previously. Animal Planet ran an hour-long special about the trip he and a buddy took skiing all the way to the North Pole, perhaps the last people to do that as global warming sets in. He was the first person to do an unassisted, unsupported trip across Antarctica. He has summited all the Seven Summits, as well as some peaks no one else has climbed. As Tricia says, he has quite a climbing resume.
For all of his Kili climbs Ryan teams with the local outfit led by Faustin and Leon, father and son. For much of the first part of the climb, Annie was right behind Faustin, who reminded her and then the rest of us to use the “rest step”. That’s a technique I had heard of but not previously done: step forward with one leg, lock the knee, then step forward with the other leg, and lock that knee. Earlier in the evening, I was impatient with the move/halt when the person in front of me did the rest step. I wanted to keep my feet moving steadily upward. As my breath grew short and the hours proceeded, I began trying it myself. Oops – should have done that a lot sooner! Although my wind and strength had been good throughout the trek, by mid-way up the switchbacks I was falling behind on breath, starting to go into oxygen debt. I could keep moving, but felt like I was increasingly out of breath and started to think wishfully about getting a break, which never seemed to come. After a while, I started to use the rest step all the time. Remarkable. I caught my breath each time I locked my leg, From then on to the summit, my breathing stayed steady. I was one of the lucky ones. All the training and my heritage as a runner paid off.
For all of her other challenges, Annie never experienced any problems with breathing, even at the high altitude. Peter used the “pressure breathing” that the guides had taught us – deep inhale followed by big push of air out the mouth. The idea was to push out the carbon dioxide and give the alveoli more oxygen. It helped. Annie chose to breathe the way she normally does, given her history of sinus infections. She breathed through her mouth and she was fine.
As a group, we made superb time for the first three hours or so. 45 minutes in, before starting the switchbacks, Ryan asked if we needed a break. The group said no, so we went nearly 90 minutes before our first break. Then, well over an hour until the second break. Then, over an hour again until the third break. During this time, the pace was steady, and actually faster than we had done on the second and third days of the trip (this was day 6). On one stretch, we caught up with a group of 15 hikers from Denmark. Ryan was leading, and he did what the porters did so often- found a path slightly off to one side, and then proceeded to gradually pull ahead. Two or three turns later, Ryan and the first three hikers were ahead of the Danes, so our group went ahead and passed them entirely. There were other head lamps of hikers above and below us, but our group was by now a steady set of hikers who had passed a different big group. (We found out later that only 5 of the 15 Danes had reached Uhuru – when some started to drop, it seems that others could give up as well.)
That was the good news: temperature more moderate than expected; wind only occasionally more than 10 mph; a clear sky after moon-set with Southern stars up above; and a solid start that put us way up the mountain by the third break.
But that tells only a small part of the story of how hard the hike was becoming for many members of the group. For Annie, this was turning into perhaps the hardest day of her life. A had diahrrea, so she ate little the evening before the summit attempt and drank even less for fear that the diarrhea would hit again. There simply was no, zero, nada way for her to poop on the way up – no real place to do it out of sight of the group, and unthinkably cold to squat on the steep mountain side. A took an Immodium before setting out, but her entire hike was shaped by the lack of energy and stomach pain that accompanied her through the cold night. Perhaps worse for Annie was that she had to leave her beloved Camelback in the tent. Annie always sips little bits, every couple of minutes, when she hikes. Annie remembered, though, that her Camelback had frozen in Nepal, even with insulation, so she couldn’t bring it. Also, Ryan said that the Camelbacks would freeze on the hike, and gave what he called his “tough love” message to her and the group – drink from your bottles during the rest stops.
This “tough love” rule combined in a painful way with the small number of breaks in the night. We were well over three hours into the hike, and had only stopped twice. By now, Annie was feeling more and more dehydrated at each step. At last, she simply sat down on the trail. She needed fluids. She drank from her bottle. The guides gathered around her. Ryan checked on Annie, and said that what she was experiencing was not due to the altitude, so it would be safe for her to continue but she had to decide whether she could do it through the stomach pain. By now, even I decided to put on my down jacket – it was getting colder and still full dark. From this time until the top, each step for Annie was a mental and physical challenge.
When we resumed, they put Annie at the front, right behind the guide Leon. A had that look of determination that I have seen before, made more heart-rendering by my knowledge that she was sick to her stomach, low energy from lack of food and water, cold in her hands and toes, and still far from the top. In a well-intended effort to cheer her up, Leon began to do a little jig or dance as he climbed the mountain.
By now, much of the group was struggling. Our cast of characters included:
Michele: She was worried from the first day that she couldn’t make it. Despite Ryan’s and Faustin’s best efforts, she was always hungry from lack of appetizing gluten-free food. For most of the trek, she slept only in snatches.
Jodie: Not only were downhills a trial for her, but she felt dizzy on the ascent.
Mark: This marathoner had his bout with stomach troubles hit an hour before we started the climb. By Uhuru, he looked more listless and drained than anyone.
Kelly: She is allergic to Diamox, and so had well-founded worries about how well her body would adapt to the high altitude. The day before, she arrived at Barafu Camp with a blinding headache, so she was afraid that every step higher up would be even worse. Fortunately, the rest from lunch until midnight helped with the headache, so she felt merely exhausted like the rest of us on the ascent.
Aaron: His boots didn’t fit well. He arrived on the trek without poles. And, worst of all, he couldn’t sleep the two nights before the ascent. He got more quiet and his eyes showed the strain as the climb continued.
Tricia: As far as I know, our TFK organizer had no specific maladies the night of the climb. But the sheer strain of the effort had her in tearful group hug with Annie and Michelle at Stella Point.
Joan and Annie: These sisters (the other members with me of the over-50 crowd) had to push but basically were similar to me in being able to make the climb.
At dinner the night before, Ryan said the hardest part of the climb would be in the time just before the dawn. He was right. For me, that was the period when I felt that I wanted more breaks, and would spend the 15 minutes or so before each break wondering when the heck we would get one. For others, it was much worse. Annie later said that she almost gave up at least three different times. She nearly fell asleep two or three times, and caught herself drifting off the trail. The worst was just before sunrise. She was praying Hail Marys. Near the end of her strength, she prayed the Memorare. Moments later, behind us and to the right, she saw the first small line of light to the East. She turned back and told the group to stop and look behind us for the light on the horizon. Minutes later, the area of light grew brighter, although we still walked step-by-step with our head lamps focused on the feet of the person before us. When the sun began to rise, it was in the clouds. Then, a minute later, the red orb of the sun was half in the clouds and half emerging above. We stopped to grab our cameras, but the moment was too short. That moment later, the sun became its yellow self, and dawn had at last arrived.
Annie said that she doubted she would have made it if the sun had come even a few minutes later. She felt, literally, that her prayers had been answered. The Memorare, as I understand it, asks Mary to give her Son that little extra push. With that push, the sun rose, and Annie knew she could push ahead.
We were still only about 4.5 or 5 hours into what would take us 8 hours to the summit. The light grew brighter as we grimly did our rest steps and kept climbing. A little later, the guide Charles came around and turned off my head lamp. It had not occurred to me to do so – I was putting one foot in front of the other, hoping constantly that Annie would be ok, and not thinking about anything more than that.
Not long after dawn, Jodie became the second group member (after Annie) to sit down on the path and have the guides gather. She was dizzy, feeling sick. After a few minutes, she stood and they put her with Annie and Michelle at the front. We were a group, and we were going to do everything possible to get us all together up the mountain. From then to Stella Point, the group went up one slow step at a time. No one was out front, sauntering proudly to the top. Whoever was having the toughest time at the moment would essentially set the pace – we were sticking together.
The switchbacks continued. Actually, the word “switchback” is a misnomer. We would go left up the hill for perhaps ten steps. Then a turn, often up a big step onto a rock. Then go right for 8, or 15, or perhaps 20 steps. Then, another turn. After the hike, Aaron laughed about the switchbacks and said: “There were no switchbacks. We climbed straight up.” He was right. It was steep.
The last hour or so to Stella Point was the worst. By now, the path no longer contained hard-packed dirt. For most of this stretch, the path had two main components: scree (small chips of rock that slipped downhill when you stepped on them) and sand, which also slipped down as your foot tried to find a solid spot. By now, in addition, it was perhaps the steepest part of the entire hike. I was once again relatively fortunate – I have hiked often in loose footing, and for whatever reason can usually find my grip. But Annie hates gravel and sand. During our training, she detested the gravel path at Stone Mountain because she found it hard to find her footing. Now, depleted by diarrhea, dehydration, and the long night, Annie was fighting for every step forward. It felt, literally, like two steps forward and one step back.
The last hour felt much, much longer. I would occasionally try to encourage Annie, or ask if there was some way I could help. She usually did not answer. She was in her own world, doing each rest step, hoping not to slide down too much, and then doing it again. Our path was headed to Stella Point, where we would see the rim of the volcanic crater. Perhaps for two hours we could see the tantalizing presence of Stella Point steeply and far up ahead. But it never seemed closer. It was almost straight up ahead of us, visibly up a steep, steep path. Finally, the angle to Stella began to change. We were getting to a ridge that led the last few hundred yards to the top. Stella was now distinctly off to our right. The sand and scree hardened just a bit into a more recognizable path.
Step by step we moved to the top. A few more steps and we were there, on the flat, with the sign for Stella Point right in front of our eyes. Annie, Michele, and Tricia did a group hug, all in cascades of tears. Then, I came to Annie and felt a rush of emotion from her unlike anything I can remember in life. She was exhausted. She had made it. She could let down after all those terrible hours in the dark when she feared she couldn’t make it, despite months and then days of effort. Annie sobbed for minutes, and I held her close.
We didn’t know if we would proceed to Uhuru Summit, so I dug the Georgia Tech and Princeton flags out of the pack. Annie and I smiled and did our two pictures at Stella Point. If that were to be the high point of the day, well, we had made it farther than almost anyone feeling as Annie felt could have made it.
The group rested for a few minutes at Stella Point, but the wind was the worst it had been. Ryan said it was time to leave. He asked Annie if she wanted to try for Uhuru. She didn’t know. Annie told Michele that she didn’t think she could make it. Michele answered: “Oh yes you will.” Annie stood up again, and together she and I began the hour-long hike to the highest point. Fortunately, it was “only” a couple of hundred vertical higher than Stella Point. The group spread out, and we began our step-by-step.
In this part, I walked next to Annie. Perhaps ten minutes in, the group stopped. Annie had been so upset not to have her snacks with her. I was able to share a Snickers small bar and then she ate perhaps a third of a chocolate and peanut flavored protein bar – the most food she had had by far. The rest helped us all. After it, we began to do something recognizably more similar to a walk than a stumble.
Off to our right was the volcanic crater, enormously larger than we had expected. Annie said it was “massive.” Far across the crater was a glacial structure. Much closer, off to the left, was the vertical wall of a glacier, perhaps 100 feet tall (or perhaps much more), with a pool of melt at the bottom. The wall had many colors, especially blue and green. Near the end of it was a weather station. Annie felt human enough she began to take a few pictures again.
I knew I had one challenge before me. After our day together on Baranko Wall, Ryan knew about my problem with heights — when I visually could see nothing beyond an edge or a rock, some deep and fearful part of my brain feared there was a terrible cliff on the other side. Since Tibet/China 14 years ago, and likely since a bad day on Whistler when Jesse was 6, I have not found a good way to face this vertigo problem. On this trip, I practiced meditation breathing before and after the Baranko Wall, but I still had a huge and problematic adrenaline rush climbing that day, and was exhausted afterwards. That night, and the night after before the Summit, I tried something new. I would look at a rock (or visualize it when I lay down at night), and realize that initially I was automatically assuming the cliff on the other side. Then, in person, I would literally walk around the rock to show my disbelieving eyes that there was a manageable slope on the other side. In the sleeping bag at night, I would do the same. I would see the edge or the rock. I would realize I was visualizing a scary cliff. I would then literally change the angle of the drop, moving from the vertical to not quite as steep and then all the way to comfortingly horizontal. The visualization seemed to help. At Barafu Camp, steeply above the next plain, I was happy to remain calm even though the flat part of the ridge was quite narrow.
But Ryan, honest man that he is, had warned me that there could be one difficult place for me on the way from Stella to Uhuru. At one point, the sheer crater wall comes right next to the trail. I knew it was coming, and Ryan had promised he would be by my side when we got there. When we got there, I knew this was the place. The path turned to the right, toward the crater. Then two or three steps on the edge (fortunately with a couple of rocks to the right as well). Then, cut back to the left and the wider path. I saw the place. I simply stepped forward, looked ahead and to the left, and did the needed steps. No, I did not brazenly stop and admire the view to the right over the crater. But I got through it calmly enough and could move forward.
It is a slow walk from Stella to Uhuru Peak. Thank goodness, nothing is too steep. By now, Aaron’s tiredness was visible on his face. Mark, Michele, and Jodie were slow, as well as Annie. But by now we all believed we would make it. Near the end of the hour, we rounded a turn and the flat summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was before us. In the center, a bit to the right, was the famous sign. From night and cold into day, sunshine, and relative warmth, our entire group now were the only people at the top of Africa.
It was time for pictures. Annie had walked well past the sign, looking for a geo-cache. I called to her, perhaps more gruffly than I should have, and said it was time for the group photo. We shouldn’t hold up the entire group. Reluctantly, Annie left her search for the cache, which perhaps will remain her biggest regret from the trip.
We did the group photos – the hikers, then with Ryan, then with the guides. Despite the sunshine and relative warmth, Kelly and Jodie needed to get down the mountain, and I was feeling uneasy with the fall toward the crater. Kelly and Jodie did their individual photos, and they started down with Leon. Annie and I went next, with me smiling but holding the sign pretty tightly from the side away from the crater. We did the Georgia Tech flag, which I think is our best photo. Then Princeton. Then a somewhat botched kiss, and a better warm smile together toward the camera. Annie wanted a picture of her jumping next to the sign, but I by then was in a rush to head down. With the guide Charles, we began our descent.
We had done it. We knew for the rest of our lives that we would remember that moment at Uhuru, and the effort to get there. But we still had far, far to go to return to our camp.
We caught Kelly and Jodie near Stella, but decided to go alone with Charles down a different path than they took. That was fortunate for us, because Annie is an ace at descending and somehow she had the energy to do it despite little food and no relief from the stomach pain.
It is far easier to descend in scree and sand than to climb. We essentially skied down much of the switchbacks. Charles first, then Annie, and I in the rear in a way that reminded me of skiing with young Nathan and Jesse. Sometimes the sand turned to step-down on the rocks. A couple of times we each fell, but the worst of it was a couple of scratches on my right hand. No breaks at all (that I can remember) until we were minutes from the base of the switchbacks. Boy, I had to go pee by then, and Annie did as well. Charles spotted Ryan and the group up the hill. We didn’t want to wait, because we wanted as much rest as possible at camp, so off we went.
We felt we were almost there, but once again the last part was hardest. Steps down rocks. Then the flat part, with a couple of minutes of painful up hill. Then, we could see Barafu Camp. But the last part, at least a half an hour, was one tricky step at a time down steep rocks. Annie said her knees were toast. My arms were tired from all the work with the poles to get down from one ledge to the next. If we hurried, we risked a nasty fall on sharp rocks. If we went slowly, then we felt we would never get there. We kept being “almost” there, with the tantalizing view of the Slingfin dome tent ahead of us.
We made it, arriving at camp at 12:15 p.m., exactly 11 hours after we left the night before.
The rest of the day was anti-climax. Annie and I rested a bit, but had no time to sleep. A quick lunch. Then, time to pack the tent. Ouch. We were moving really, really slowly, but there was a strict departure time at 3:00 p.m. The porters were literally packing up the tents next to ours. Ryan reminded us at least twice we had to leave on time. We were packed and out of our tent, ready to go. At 2:57. It was starting to snow as we left camp.
Two more hours of hiking to go, down from 15,000 feet to 12,000 feet. I felt caught between elated and exhausted. Sunshine again – we had as nice weather as one could reasonably hope for on Summit Day. How very, very, very fortunate. If the winds and clouds had hit us hard, I doubt very much we all would have made it.
On that additional hike, Annie’s toes started to really feel it. She had changed the laces to fit the summit socks for the previous night. That had worked surprisingly well, but she didn’t have time to change the laces back properly for the additional hike. Annie’s knees were toast before lunch, so I guess “burned toast” after two more hours of continuous downhill? Once again, I was tired but I felt more like the end of a good, long run than anything else. No blisters, no bad toes, and tired but not painful in the knees.
We made it to High Camp. Everyone was happy. And tired. And some were still sick. Annie ate only rice cakes and banana for dinner (BRAT diet), just as she had the night before. No one stayed up to play Yahtzee. We all went back to our tents and slept the sleep of the just-summited.